Failing High Schools and Debbie Downers

There used to be this amazing sketch on Saturday Night Live. In it, Rachel Dratch played a character named Debbie Downer who would always show up at parties or happy water fountain conversations where people were laughing and smiling. At the perfect moment, she would interject something terribly depressing that made everybody look at each other in disgust. She would say something about infectious disease or global warming, and then in a stroke of musical genius, a few depressing string notes would play as she made a perplexed face at the camera. It was perfect.

“Well, it’s official. I can’t have children,” she blurted out toward the end of a sketch that has an Ohio family visiting Disney World. Horatio Sanz and Jimmy Fallon are losing their shit on either side of the table. Sanz  actually starts wiping his tears with Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles. If you have six minutes, you should definitely watch it. It’s probably a better use of your time than finishing this blog.

I feel like I have my own Debbie Downer line these days, but it isn’t some random fact about natural disasters. I just have to say what I do for a living.

“I teach at a failing high school.”

I can feel the shifting uneasiness.

Of course, I never actually say “failing high school,” but Pittsburgh is a small city and people generally have some assumption about the schools. If I’m not in Pittsburgh, people recognize phrases like “neighborhood high school” or they ask masked questions like “so.. You are teaching in the actual city then?” I always laugh, as though there is another non-actual city that would be more acceptable.

After I laugh, I try to say a bad joke.

“Well, yes I’m in the ACTUAL city now, after my brief tenure in a lego version.” And then they contort their face in such a way that makes me feel like I just Debbie Downer-ed them. They look like Horatio Sanz right before he starts to laugh uncontrollably.

I imagine they instantly see me as some human-shaped vacuum sucking in tax dollars while I flip out worksheets, sit at my desk, and play Sim City on my phone. Or, if they’re well-meaning, they imagine that I am like that white lady in “Freedom Writers” and I solve most problems with a note pad, an inspirational writing prompt, and 2hrs and 3 minutes. As I write this, I know I shouldn’t go around assuming what others think, but they come from assumptions that I have had to varying degrees about myself. I’ve seen myself, sometimes in the same week, as a waste of tax dollars and a hollywood-level hero.

Lately though, I have been feeling more like the vacuum. But it is not because of my self deprecating, impostor teacher, tendencies that I feel this way. I just have to face it: teaching is not a cool job. And teaching in a failing, urban public high school is the most uncool kind of teacher. People just assume I am so bad at teaching, that I was unable to get one of the other jobs that are just slightly higher on the professional hierarchy. I’m not the purple-haired and tattooed girl working at some STEAM charter that holds classes outside, nor am I a Banana Republic model teaching at the best school in the state. I’m just a guy in some Old Navy khakis, a partially untucked button down shirt, and some sensible shoes teaching in a high school that isn’t doing its job. And I can’t blame people for making the logical inference that I am probably not doing my job.  

I understand why that is kind of awkward. In fact, I kind of want to contort my own face like Horatio Sanz did in that Disney land sketch.

Until very recently, I’ve always laughed this off. In other words, I’ve always kind of believed that I was doing something important. With 8 years of experience teaching at “failing” schools, I clung to the disconnected idealism of the savior teacher, even though I had changed its look and would have never called it by name. I believe in the little anecdotes and success stories in an ocean of systemic failure.

I had never even considered that I was part of the problem. Or, more specifically, that I’m guilty by association.

I have been listening to some podcasts recently on police brutality. In each of the episodes and stories that I heard, the police officers say the same kind of thing. They would always talk about themselves, or their murderous colleagues, in the same way.

“They were one of the good guys.”

“They got into this profession for all the right reasons.”

“They were working to change all the negative stuff that people say about cops.”

It kept driving me crazy. Why couldn’t all they police officers see that they were working for a corrupt and racist system, and trying to justify that system with their personal righteousness?

And then I saw the irony.

I work in a system of education in this country that is failing, probably corrupt, and statistically, and blatantly at times, racist. To be fair, that is not just directed at traditional public schools. Charter and private schools are complicit in this system. It occurred to me, for the first time, that I might be the equivalent of that cop who always shows up on facebook playing wiffle ball in the projects with his nightstick. Or that other cop who pulls people over and gives them ice cream. I tell myself I am one of the good guys, while I work in a system that is horribly tilted against students of color.

I have this growing feeling of unease about this whole thing. I am simultaneously playing Debbie Downer, and contorting my face at my own words and actions. I’m being paid by the evil empire, but believe that I am important and positive component in that empire.

I’m a good guy in a bad thing.   

But when do we reach the point where being that “good guy in a bad thing” isn’t enough? When do we, and I, start asking some larger questions? I don’t have these answers, and simply asking questions and contorting faces doesn’t really get us anywhere.